Physicians Are Talking: Should Doctors Lie to Protect a Colleague?

Agnes Shanley

Disclosures

January 18, 2017

'I Wasn't Going to Be a Squealer'

To some physicians, testifying against a fellow physician, even when he or she is at fault, is worse than lying under oath.

Lars Aanning, a retired surgeon in South Dakota, admitted in a local newspaper (and later in public radio interviews) that he had lied under oath 15 years ago to protect a fellow doctor, according to a Medscape article published last October. One of his partners had operated on a patient who had a stroke and became permanently disabled after the surgery. Aanning was called as a witness for the defense. His partner was absolved, and life went on. But Aanning's conscience, he wrote, wouldn't rest.

Aanning's essay described the typically close bond between physicians who work together—a bond so close that violating it is often tantamount to career suicide. He argued that testimony from physicians' colleagues should never be considered reliable in court, because, as he put it, "[they] have essentially sworn an oath of loyalty to each other."

He added that the courtroom isn't the best place to judge the right and wrong of medical issues. In his words, "Looking to the legal system is like mixing oil and water."

An Unshakable Brotherhood?

In a poll that accompanied the Medscape article, readers were asked whether they were surprised that Aanning had lied to protect his colleague. More than 4100 respondents (81%) said no, they weren't surprised, but 68% felt that his admission, 15 years later, wasn't helpful.

One psychiatrist said he didn't bat an eye when reading of Aanning's confession: "This is not at all surprising. It's just another example of tribalism, whether it's lying to protect your family or your profession, or merely self-preservation."

What bothered many readers most was the timing of Aanning's change of heart, which took place after he had started a post-retirement career working for a local attorney as a patient advocate in malpractice cases. One rheumatologist said, "Coming clean when you can't be touched is neither a sign of integrity nor absolution, but rather a sign of a coward."

Several readers who agreed with this sentiment further pointed out that Aanning wasn't legally obligated to testify on behalf of his partner. An ob/gyn wrote:

This person is showing his true colors. He could have simply said that he didn't want to testify [in the original case], thereby avoiding deceit. Now, he's a plaintiff's witness. How credible will his testimony be, now that he's an admitted perjurer?

One anesthesiologist questioned Aanning's true motives in pouring his heart out: "It seems that the doctor had just rediscovered his missing integrity, because now that newfound integrity will help him make more money as a plaintiff witness."

Many readers said they found it galling that Aanning waited 15 years to come forward with the truth. "His words would have more credibility," wrote an emergency medicine physician, "if he had uttered them at a time closer to his testimony. Now he has much to gain economically by allying himself with patients who are plaintiffs in lawsuits."

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